HOUSTON -- It was no surprise to hear Dominic Kinnear profess his love of the 4-4-2 formation after the Dynamo's 3-1, playoff-clinching performance against Philadelphia on Oct. 21.
But what made the Houston head coach's confession noteworthy was how he started the previous game. Against the Montreal Impact on Oct. 6, Houston deployed a 4-3-3, a formation it has flirted with for half of the Major League Soccer season. Against Philadelphia, though, attacker Calen Carr was dropped. Destroyers Ricardo Clark and Adam Moffat were left to man the middle. Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia moved wide, while Mac Kandji was pulled in from the wing to support Will Bruin up top. The setup moved the Dynamo one step closer to their coach's favorite formation.
"I like the 4-4-2," Kinnear said when asked about the choice postmatch. Given the success he's had with this setup over his eight years in charge, it's easy to see why.
Last year, Houston rode Kinnear's preferred 4-4-2 to the MLS Cup final. The Dynamo began 2012 with the same approach, but after a mid-June stretch of four points in as many games, Kinnear switched, using the signing of Honduran international Oscar Boniek Garcia as cause for change. With a three-man midfield, the Dynamo surged to the top of the Eastern Conference, but when they hit September's last match on a 1-5 skid, Kinnear went back to the tried and true.
Now, Kinnear doesn't know if or when he's going to use two or three in the middle.
"Tea leaves," Kinnear offered flippantly when asked how he decides which formation to start. "I couldn't tell ya. The personnel is probably the most important thing for me.
"You go in with a game plan in mind, but you talk to the players and say, 'Hey, if it's not working, we can flip-flop to [the 4-4-2].'"
Major League Soccer has always been a heavy 4-4-2 circuit, a legacy embodied in the preferences of the league's prominent coaches. Kinnear, Sigi Schmid (Seattle), Bruce Arena (L.A. Galaxy), Jason Kreis (Real Salt Lake) and Frank Yallop (San Jose) all default to the formation. Counting Houston, all 10 of the league's postseason qualifiers could employ some variation on soccer's most enduring setup.
That Kinnear, in his ninth year as an MLS head coach, is vacillating between formations as the playoffs are set to begin is one of the league's more compelling storylines. Houston's not the only team in flux -- Chicago recently moved out of a 4-2-3-1 while Vancouver switched to a midfield diamond -- but Kinnear is supposed to be one of MLS's more predictable coaches. That he would consider a new approach this postseason is remarkable, albeit in a very subtle way.
"I like having two forwards who are making menacing runs down the lanes and into the box, but sometimes it does change," notes Kinnear. "The most important thing is to try and keep it simple and basic for the players."
For most of Houston's starters, life stays the same regardless of the formation. The back five's responsibilities don't change, while Bruin (Houston's first choice at No. 9) stays matched up against the opposition's center halves.
Kandji, Houston's 27-year-old Senegalese attacker, sees his role change most. Ahead of a three-man midfield, the former Red Bulls and Rapids forward plays on the left, his size (6-foor-4) allowing him to serve as an outlet from the back. When part of a two-forward setup, Kandji becomes a supporting striker, often receiving the ball at his feet and asked to hold up play in order to bring the likes of Davis and Garcia into attack.
How the opposition plays affects how complicated that job becomes. "It does [present a challenge]," Moffat said about the difference between facing a two- and three-man midfield, using the 3-1 win over Philadelphia as an illustration. "With us, communication comes into it."
While the defensive midfielder's responsibilities don't change between formations ("My role is still to protect that back four"), the shift puts him in competition with the man who would otherwise be his partner. In a three-man midfield, Davis and Garcia play on top of a triangle, with Clark and Moffat left to fight for one spot in front of the defense. In a 4-4-2, Kinnear can start a duo capable of playing any opponent to a stalemate.
Though Clark has just returned from two-plus years in Europe, he's one of the players most familiar with Kinnear's system. After spending his first two MLS seasons with the MetroStars, Clark was traded to San Jose in 2005, Kinnear's second season as head coach of the Earthquakes. There (and after San Jose moved to Houston in 2006), Clark spent most of his time at the base of a diamond-shaped midfield, supporting the likes of Dwayne De Rosario and Stuart Holden.
Clark's summer return from Eintracht Frankfurt has allowed Kinnear to bring back his two-man midfield without fear of being overrun. In this version, however, Clark is being asked to inject a little more "DeRo" into his game.
"[I]n the two-man midfield, my role is mostly to play [like a] No. 10 and kind of creep forward a little bit," Clark said after a shift partnering Moffat. "[In] a three-man midfield, I've only really played the defensive mid role ...
"It's not really that much of an adjustment," according to Clark, describing the difference between formations. "Brad and Boniek tuck in, even when we play a 4-4-2."
That feature may be what distinguishes Kinnear's current 4-4-2. On the left and right of midfield he has players capable of pinching in and making up the numbers, helping to offset the fears of using a formation that often leaves its midfield outnumbered.
"I think it's very important," Davis said of the versatility he and Garcia bring to their positions. "I think we've had a ton of success with it. We saw Boni doing it a lot [against Philadelphia] as well: trying to come inside and create. That's a huge part of the creativity on this team. Having guys that ... are comfortable in the center of midfield and also comfortable out wide, guys that have played in both those positions."
It's this type of versatility that made Davis an unlikely MVP candidate in 2011. Spurring Houston's late-season surge, Davis went on to lead the league last season with a career-high 16 assists, facilitating from the left in a role that evolved into a playmaker position after Stuart Holden left for Bolton.
"Wherever I am on the field, I have a sense of responsibility to try and create," Davis said. “Movement off the ball. That's all I try and do."
For the fourth straight year, Davis has at least 12 assists, but whereas in previous seasons the numbers were accumulated from a supporting role, now the 12-year veteran is the focal point of Houston's setup, even if that means a slight change of responsibilities when he shifts into the middle.
The way Davis goes about his work, however, remains the same regardless of position.
"I approach every single game the same way. Maybe when we're in a three-man midfield, I think my head's got to be on a swivel a little bit more defensively. Other than that, I approach the game with the same manner, the same mentality," he said.
Herein lies the intrigue: Because of their inconsistency, it's been difficult to tell whether Houston's better with a three-man or two-man midfield. Dips in form have motivated moves away from each. Now, with Houston having locked up a playoff spot after a convincing performance in a 4-4-2, Kinnear may revert back to his preferred setup. The addition of Clark (and the talents of Davis and Garcia) give him license to do so.
Fitness permitting, Kinnear will continue to use such license, though given how the Dynamo have performed in the two formations, fate (and team fitness) may still have its say. When starting a two-man midfield, the Dynamo are 7-6-5. With three in the middle, Houston's 7-6-3.
It's unclear how much formation will matter on Wednesday when the Dynamo visit Chicago in the Eastern Conference's knockout round. Saturday's season-ender in Colorado provided no clues as Houston rested its best players after the East's playoff order was set in stone. If Kinnear falls back into his comfort zone, Clark and Moffat will do battle with Fire midfielders Pavel Pardo and Logan Pause.
Survive the Windy City, however, and Houston will get the ultimate chance to leverage that two-man midfield. Given the potential for Clark and Moffat to neutralize Sporting Kansas City's three-man middle, the Dynamo would become the East's biggest threat to Sporting's title hopes.
Richard Farley is a freelance writer based in the Northwest covering MLS and European soccer. You can reach him on Twitter at @richardfarley or via email at email@example.com.